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A hellish road trip precedes a runaround in Yueyang


  MARCH 29—After the pleasant surprise of Yichang, the charm of the towns along the Yangtze River went rapidly downhill. From Yichang, I went to Shashi by taxi to interview executives of Jingzhou Jianghan Fine Chemicals. The Jianghan managers were an intelligent and sophisticated bunch, in contrast to Shashi itself, a dusty, poor, and quite depressing town.

The next day, I took a bus about 120 miles downriver to Yueyang in Hunan province. The bus was rather filthy, and it became increasingly overcrowded as we drew closer to Yueyang. Passengers smoked cigarettes liberally, but windows remained closed due to the chilly air outside. The driver, a very friendly man, added to the noise of conversations by listening to loud pop music.

There is no highway between Shashi and Yueyang. Instead, the bus uses a road that goes through a succession of dismal villages. Seeing how unattractive the lifestyle is in those villages, I can understand why cities in China attract so many migrants. The walls of the houses are crooked and marred by holes. Instead of lawns, houses display unsightly piles in their front yards--bricks, dirt, glass bottles, and garbage. It is quite unlike the coastal province of Zhejiang, just south of Shanghai, where villagers are affluent.

Scenic: Yueyang is not so bad if viewed from a height.

It was not much of a relief to arrive in Yueyang, the second largest city in Hunan with a population of perhaps 500,000. Although Yueyang has broad boulevards, it is soulless and contains many destitute neighborhoods. At my hotel, the second best in the city, the rooms cost less than $25 a night. Named Hisun, the hotel is a poorly run affair afflicted by frequent power outages. And when electricity cut off, the elevators did not work and the lights in the emergency staircases went out as well.

Unattractive: Homes are rural Hubei are devoid of any charm
After taking a shower to get rid of the dust I had collected during the bus ride, I went straight to the city government to gather information about Yueyang's chemical industry. Now looking quite sharp in a shirt and tie, I stopped first at the foreign investment promotion office, located in a shiny building full of city government officials. The staff of the foreign investment bureau referred me to another office, the Municipal Economic Commission, in a different building five minutes away by taxi.

Located behind the city hall, the commission was not a hub of activity. It featured offices that were mostly empty except for a few employees reading the newspaper. At the Industry Promotion Bureau (an approximate translation), an official told me to go to the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Bureau. This was another five minutes away by taxi. That office was located in a much smaller building. There, predictably, officials directed me back to the foreign investment promotion office where I had gone in the first place. I gave up.

Yueyang is actually home to a fairly substantial chemical industry, including a Sinopec refinery and several petrochemical plants. Sinopec officials in Yueyang would probably have welcomed my visit, but I had not made the necessary arrangements ahead of time. Sinopec is one company where you cannot just show up.

I flagged a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the petrochemical plants to take some photos. Unfortunately, there was little that could be seen clearly from the road. But on the way back, I saw some outdoor signs put up by a local property developer.

The company was not hiding the fact that its new properties are located next to a petrochemical complex. Quite the opposite. Its advertising portrayed the proximity of petrochemical plants as highly desirable. Whereas in the West, most people think of the chemical industry as a source of pollution and falling property values, in Yueyang, it is seen as a sign of progress.

Welcoming industry: real estate developers in Yueyang portray the proximity of petrochemical plants in a positive light.
Photos by Jean-François Tremblay

[Back to Chronicling the Yangtze River]

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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